The Doomsday Device
Oppenheimer is mostly high-class cheese – but with a grim message
[Oscar nominations are out and I’m ahead of schedule with reviews of top contenders like Barbie, Killers of the Flower Moon, The Holdovers, Poor Things, Past Lives, and American Fiction. Here’s another — much more to come! ]
I’m not surprised Oppenheimer got 13 Academy Award nominations yesterday. Every craft element of the movie is top-notch, as you’d expect from Christopher Nolan. With pictures like Dunkirk and Interstellar you can imagine Nolan hoping a big idea emerges from the generosity of and attention to details — as in the old saying, if you take care of the pennies the dollars take care of themselves. But here he’s got a big idea, as well, which makes it more involving than usual, if not more profound.
The thing starts with a lot of great-man biopic gush, such as Kenneth Branagh as Niels Bohr telling young Mahler-haired Robert Oppenheimer, whose math isn’t as good as physics demands, that “algebra isn’t like sheet music — the important thing isn’t ‘can you read music,’ but ‘can you hear it” — all of a high order as far as it goes, but very much expected.
Oppenheimer seems even crazier than the guy in A Beautiful Mind — but in a Romantic way: Fever sweats, bugged eyes, and visions not just of the cosmos and microverses but also of then-modern art, Picasso and Modigliani and all that, and their implied relationship to the New Physics — theories that are either making or destroying the world, or both.
Also part of that historic wave is communism and socialism, which Oppenheimer lets his coattails brush — enough to sympathize but also get suspicious of the true believers (or at least wary of their potential impact on his career) and to get involved with two movement-related women, one a full comrade, Jean, who’s mordant and unbalanced, and a former comrade, Kitty, who got sick of “eating beans and pancakes and handing out the Daily Worker at factory gates” and, as played by Emily Blunt, with the bone-deep bitterness to prove it. Oppenheimer goes with Kitty, mainly because Jean is impossible. But he cheats on her with Jean. He seems to think this a good arrangement because, in theory, he can give each woman what she wants. This is our first hint that Oppenheimer believes in having things both ways, and it goes as badly as it will later on with the Atomic Energy Commission.
As Oppenheimer rises in the practical physics world and gains the attention of the folk looking to end the war with a bang, we get more biopic gush: Plucky physicists thinking on their feet, scribbling manically on chalkboards, racing the clock, finishing each other’s thoughts and so on. But they are also, some of them, under suspicion because of their associations with lefties, or because they’re lefties themselves; Oppenheimer constantly has to go to mat to get them permission to beat the Nazis. He’s their ringmaster and good at it, but all of them sense what’s coming next (“They need us.” “Until they don’t”) and are deciding whether they will run with the fox or the hounds.
The making-the-bomb part and the blowing-up-the-bomb part are catnip, great you-are-there showmanship. But already the downfall is in motion, and it starts, not with Oppenheimer’s later AEC security clearance defeat (which we already know something about, because the movie hops around in time), but within the man himself as the overwhelming enormity of the force he has unleashed begins to crack the natural hubris that got him through the Manhattan Project.
The suggestion is that even though Oppenheimer’s post-war security clearance hearing is stacked against him — with prosecutor Roger Robb, played by Jason Clarke as not just dripping but sopping with condescension, set upon Oppenheimer by the jealous industrialist and AEC chairman Lewis Strauss, played by Robert Downey Jr. as a sort of vengeful lanyard — he might have had a chance, at least, if he could have been the sort of politician who threads such needles. In fact, at first, as he talks the brass into doing things his way, he seems as though he could be.
But as Cillian Murphy plays it, Oppenheimer at this stage is paralyzed by existential guilt — even when leading a celebration of the Hiroshima explosion at Los Alamos, he has visions of burnt corpses and nuclear ash. When the players and lawyers come for him he’s already beaten. Kitty asks, “Did you think if you let them tar and feather you that the world would forgive you?” But he doesn’t seem to want forgiveness so much as expiation. He feels he has it coming.
This is a grim and painful statement, and Nolan seems to want to pull us back from the full impact of it. He does so by letting us see Strauss get his comeuppance, as it were, in his rejection by the Senate for a cabinet post, explicitly (at least in this telling) on the basis of his treatment of Oppenheimer. The only purpose I can see for that is to keep the audience from feeling too hopeless. “Is anyone ever going to tell the truth about what’s happening here?” Oppenheimer says in his hearing, and the Senate story is Nolan’s way of telling us, yes, we’re doing that now.
This is also why Kitty is given a chance to make Robb look slightly foolish in her husband’s hearing (“I don’t like your phrase”). Nolan even gets Albert Einstein (Tom Conti, having a ball) to commiserate with him: “You served your country well. If this is the reward she offers you, maybe you should turn your back on her.” Ha ha, and you thought Nazi Germany was bad! It all strikes me as a consolation prize for historical losers and, frankly, pandering.
Still, there is the now-famous ending: Oppenheimer, recalling the constant worry at Los Alamos that the chance of an uncontrolled chain reaction that would destroy the world was only “nearly” zero, declares that they had, in fact, destroyed it. It sounds corny, I know, but Ludwig Göransson’s music, excellent throughout, really sells it, and leaves us with the thought that it wasn’t just the unleashing of nuclear power that was fatal — after all, it’s been about 80 years and we haven’t nuclear-holocausted ourselves — but the midcentury reconstitution of priorities whereby scientists are expected to be our saviors but then are stopped from actually saving us because the politics is too challenging.
And, if I may get offtrack a bit here, it’s not only climate change that this gloomy resolution made me think of. Think about how we’ve compartmentalized Hiroshima. John Hershey gave us a stern lecture about it and that was about it. It was a harsh necessity, and best not to dwell on. Why is it coming up now, in this way? Maybe because so many other things we long ago decided to let lie refuse to be left laid down.
Like I said, the craft is unbeatable; Hoyte Van Hoytema keeps the eye filled, and Jennifer Lame’s editing keeps the images from getting jammed up or confusing. By making Oppenheimer a moony weirdo with unexpected tensile strength until it gives out, Cillian Murphy really carries the flag — we can believe he’s one of a kind, a golden child, the actual “most important man in the world” (as Strauss scoffs), and also doomed.